On returning from Berlin probably around midnight, K-King joined the stack of aircraft waiting to land at Bourn. Like the other 97 Squadron planes, it was to circle waiting for permission to land for a very considerable time.
The aircraft which was at least two, possibly three, slots below them in the stack was Squadron Leader Mackenzie's. But when this aircraft came in to land, it crashed horrifically on the edge of the airfield, killing three crew members including Mackenzie. The time of the accident would later be precisely recorded on F-Freddy's accident card as 00.42.
Eight minutes later two aircraft landed at exactly the same time. This may, of course, be an error in the ORB - there are several timing discrepancies in the records. It is also possible that, out of these two aircraft, Flight Lieutenant Mansbridge's did not land at Bourn at all but at some other airfield.
What is certain is that the very last Lancaster to land at Bourn that night was captained by Flight Lieutenant Pete de Wesselow.
It is impossible to establish exactly what happened next but it is certain that it happened very quickly, because at approximately the same time that de Wesselow was landing, K-King hit the ground.
In the moments directly following Mackenzie's crash, K-King was descending rapidly through the clouds. Due to the fog, the crew could see nothing whatsoever of the ground but it is entirely possible that they saw the refracted glow of F-Freddy burning as they made their terrifying approach to land.
The extreme danger they were in must have been pressing dreadfully on all their minds. K-King was within minutes of running out of petrol.
Bennett was in his thirties, a very powerful figure and a man of supreme confidence and ability, and yet when he looked down at Joe, a mere sergeant of twenty-one who appeared still more immature with his baby-faced features, he was moved enough to give him his own coat. It was very cold, and my father, who did not realise who Bennett was until Leslie told him afterwards, was very grateful when the shadowy form of this unknown senior officer took off his uniform greatcoat and laid it gently on top of the parachute in which he was already wrapped.
Jack, the navigator, and Sandy, the bomb aimer, would have been the two who, prior to the crash, were trying to pinpoint exactly where the aircraft was. The last moments of the flight must have been spent frantically looking for a place to land. It is even possible that Jack and Sandy were specifically looking for the Hay, because if you had to chose any place in the surrounding countryside to put down a Lancaster in an emergency, this would be exactly the place that you would chose.
The Hay, 160 acres in all, was an extremely large and very noticeable area of flat land, free of trees, ditches, or other obstructions. In daytime it was easily seen from the airspace above RAF Station Bourn, and it was well known that the place had been used as a flying ground in recent years. Some Lancasters had apparently landed there as an exercise during the summer dry spell, some four or five months earlier. However, though the best option in Bourn's locality for an emergency landing, the Hay was very far from ideal. There were no lights to guide an incoming aircraft and, due to the damp and rainy winter, the ground conditions were likely to be extremely bad.
The problems of landing there may well have been discussed, but, if so, the crew voted to take the chance anyway. In truth, they had no other choice - the option of baling out had long ago disappeared.
Ted brought the Lancaster down below cloud level. They were now only 100, then 50 feet off the deck. Visibility was 150 yards or less, and as the huge Lancaster shot across the countryside at around 110 mph, the swirling mists rushed up to part before the windscreen. Ted must have been acutely aware of the appalling gravity of their situation, but he was calm and level-headed by nature and the paramount responsibility which fell upon him, the skipper, kept his natural fear in check.
As K-King made her final descent, the white vapours parted and the anxiously watching crew saw a hedge looming obliquely in front of them. The plane took a chunk out of it with one of her wheels and carried on regardless. Moments later, she landed perfectly, beginning a 300 yard run up the muddy field. Then the undercarriage collapsed. The body of the aircraft hit the ground where a obscure and little used footpath crossed the Hay. Once down, K-King slid forward with huge velocity, breaking up and catching fire as she went.
The crash site was deserted farmland, far from human habitation. The horrifying dangers of this situation were exactly the same as had snuffed out Kirkwood and Scott's entire crews, all of whom were to be found dead in or around their burnt-out aircraft when the dawn broke. However, in K-King's case, there was one different factor. Against the most extraordinary odds, at dead of night, in dense fog, in a lonely expanse of ploughed mud, a man just happened to be passing that way on a bicycle.
That man's name was Sidney Matthews. He was a member of Bourn's ground crew, and by the most bizarre and improbable quirk of chance he was actually the flight mechanic for K-King herself.
Sidney had a wife staying in Cambridge and it was for her sake that he had left the camp earlier that evening without permission, commiting the serious offence of breaking Standing Orders.
Sidney had no intention of being found out and had probably aimed to sneak back into the camp before midnight, but either his girlfriend or the fog detained him and he was an hour late, and still a mile and a half from the airfield, when K-King passed over him with a thunderous noise, landed, broke up, and caught on fire.
One or two of the crew were killed immediately. Others, including Ted, were fatally injured.
Joe, who had been knocked unconscious, was still inside the fuselage, trapped in twisted metal from his waist downwards. He had no head or chest injuries, no injuries to his vital organs, but severe fractures of both legs.
The main body of the plane was on fire, but in the initial moments after the crash it was not burning very fiercely. There was plenty of flammable material around and the flames quickly spread. Shortly they reached the ammunition belt for one of the guns. They set off the bullets, which began to whine and ping through the air. One of the bullets ricochetted through the fuselage and hit Joe in the arm, breaking it and immediately exiting. The shock was enough to bring him round. He did not realise that he had been shot, but he could hear the bullets popping, flying in all directions, set off by the encroaching fire.
It was beginning to get hot. He could feel the metal which trapped him becoming warm and little cinders beginning to settle on his face, which stung so that he had to move his head to shake them off. He was in the most extreme danger. Yet he could do nothing to help himself and he was too shocked and dazed to panic.
The same acute shock had overwhelmed Sidney Matthews for a moment. Too stunned to move, he just stood there stupidly, holding his bike, looking back into the darkness of the field he had just crossed which was now strewn with the wreckage of the aircraft.
Then the obscurity was pierced by the light of the fire, and awakening with a horrified start from his daze he hurled aside the bike as if it impeded him, vaulted back over the gate, and ran as fast as he could towards the trail of wreckage.
Lit by the lurid light of the flames, the scene was appalling, indescribable. It did not seem possible that anyone could still be alive. But then suddenly, staggering out of the darkness, weighted down by his heavy flying boots in the sticky mud, there appeared the rear gunner, Leslie. He was shocked and disorientated, blood was trickling down his face from a small cut on his cheek, but otherwise he was perfectly all right.
There was no time to waste if they were going to get anyone out of the aircraft. With the utmost courage, disregarding the bullets whining and crumping all around, putting their own lives in the most extreme danger, Sidney and Leslie climbed into the shattered Lancaster.
Though semi-conscious, through his daze Joe heard voices. The sound of these voices became louder and now he knew that there were two people with him but he was too muddled to realise who they were. One voice said, "I'll get his arms and you get his ankles". Together those two men pulled him out of the wreckage and laid him down on the ground by a hedge, some distance from the plane.
Then the pair of them went back into the burning aircraft for Ted. They brought him out with difficulty, for he was a big man and Leslie for one was very slight, and carried him to safety by the shelter of the hedge. It was a most brave and heroic action but it was all for nothing. Very soon afterwards, cradled in Sidney's arms, Ted took his last breath and died.
Help was desperately needed, and getting back on his bike Sidney now went to find it.
Using a parachute from the aircraft, Leslie wrapped Joe in it to try to keep him warm. He also tried (using the first-aid kit from the Lancaster) to give Joe a morphine injection for what he could clearly see were terrible injuries. In the first-aid classes, Leslie had been told he should give the injection as soon as possible and that was what he thought he should do, even though Joe said he was not in any pain. Leslie had a hard job convincing Joe that he needed the jab, because Joe, slightly preposterously, argued with him and said he did not want it because he was terrified of needles. Nevertheless, eventually Leslie succeeded in injecting his reluctant patient.
He then sat down next to him on the ground by the hedge, the body of Ted close by them, and the pair of them looked back at the last convulsions of the aircraft, racked every so often by loud explosions.
It seemed as if they were miles and miles from anywhere. Sidney was an awfully long time coming back, and Leslie began to worry about what to do if he did not return. He had only the vaguest idea of where he and Joe were, and if he had to leave him might wander blindly for hours through the unknown terrain in order to find help. He was very afraid that Joe might die from his dreadful injuries. It must have been the most terrible experience for this young Londoner, only twenty years of age, as he sat on the cold ground and comforted Joe, or consumed with anxiety, grief and restlessness, wandered a little distance away before returning to the side of his injured crewmate.
The agonising wait seemed never-ending. Leslie, in desperation, thinking that Sidney had got lost or that the return party could not locate them in the mist and the darkness, blew the whistle which all aircrew carried, attached to the collar of their uniform. He took the whistle off his collar and put it to his lips, and the sound rang out into the night air, thin but piercing, a most eerie, metallic and haunted music. Musically acute as Joe was, the sound seemed so unutterably strange to him that he would never forget it, and it would echo in his mind for the rest of his life.
Then at last, at long last, at two o'clock in the morning, a whole hour after the crash, people began to arrive. Amongst them was a group of senior officers, and Leslie to his amazement recognised the Pathfinder chief, the great Bennett himself, who had come to see the terrible losses of the night first-hand.